A bill that would effectively ban supervised injection sites in Philadelphia is steadily advancing with the apparent backing of all but two members of City Council.
The proposed law, sponsored by Councilmember David Oh, originally stipulated that anyone wanting to open such a facility would need 90% of community support from residents and businesses in a one-mile radius of a proposed location. It was amended to require 80% support from those within a half-mile radius, a change made Monday in response to hours of heated public testimony given during a Health and Human Services Committee hearing.
“I think it’s a symbolic change,” said Oh.
Health and Human Services Committee Members Bobby Henon, Cindy Bass, and Isaiah Thomas voted in favor of Oh’s bill. Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks opposed it. The majority vote of support means the bill will now go to a final vote before the full Council.
Oh’s bill would add the sites, where individuals can bring illicit drugs to inject under medical supervision, to a list of “nuisance health establishments” in the city’s health code. With that reclassification, the facilities would be subject to a mandatory public approval process that is not currently required, creating “insurmountable” obstacles for such a facility, said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley.
Farley, who is responsible for enforcing the city’s health code, testified against the legislation.
“As health commissioner, it is my job to prevent unnecessary deaths in Philadelphia,” said Farley, who also sits on the board of Safehouse, the nonprofit seeking to open a supervised injection facility. “Overdose prevention sites are one way of doing that. Taking that tool away from us would mean that people whose lives could be saved will continue to die unnecessarily of drug overdoses at home, on the street and in public.”
Additionally, the bill doesn’t specify how community support would be measured, Farley said.
“Among other problems, there is no explanation of how residents, businesses or institutions would make their opinions known,” said the commissioner, who has advocated for supervised injection sites since January 2018 when the Kenney administration announced it would support them. “Who would count their opinions? Or how we would weigh the opinion of a resident versus an institution, even assuming an institution can have a single opinion.”
Farley acknowledged that Safehouse should have done more community engagement before announcing it would open a location in South Philadelphia two weeks ago. But when Oh asked Farley to suggest a more appropriate percentage threshold, he said that any bill that would make it effectively impossible to open a site was not the right answer.
“These sites save lives. We want to open these sites as quickly as possible so we don’t lose lives unnecessarily,” Farley said.
The debate over supervised injection sites shifted to City Council late last month when a federal judge issued a decision that gave Safehouse permission to open. That decision is being appealed in the Third District court by U.S. Attorney William McSwain.
Immediately after the judge’s February ruling, Safehouse announced it would open quickly in Constitution Health Plaza on South Broad Street, just north of Snyder Avenue. The swift announcement without a public process came as a surprise to many who assumed that a first site would open in Kensington, the neighborhood with the highest number of overdose deaths in the city. The news prompted South Philly residents to mobilize, and their opposition caught the attention of councilmembers, state legislators and ultimately, the owner of the medical plaza, which canceled its lease with Safehouse within days of the first protest.
A slew of civic leaders from South Philadelphia and the River Wards spoke in favor of Oh’s bill Monday in City Council Chambers. The neighborhood representatives argued that supervised injection sites should have to go through the same approval process that governs new developments and the opening of unusual businesses or non-conforming uses in an area.
“If you have a doctor’s office and you want to expand upstairs and you don’t have the zoning for it, there’s a community process,” said Shannon Farrell, president of the Harrowgate Civic Association and a vocal opponent of Safehouse.
Farley noted that no other medical facility is required to go through this type of community approval process, but Farrell questioned how Safehouse was automatically granted the status of medical facility.
“I have been trained in Narcan,” she said, referring to the opioid overdose reversal drug, naloxone. “If I want to go into a building and revive someone, am I a medical facility?”
Linguistic details worried councilmember Isaiah Thomas, too. He expressed concern over classifying supervised injection sites as a nuisance before there was enough evidence to prove that they cause problems. But he said that concern didn’t override his interest in sending a message to the administration.
“When you do things without talking to people, this is the type of chaos it creates,” said Thomas.
Harm reduction advocates and medical professionals noted that a lot of important social and cultural changes can’t afford to wait for community buy-in. Bonnie Milas, a doctor at University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, has lost two sons to overdoses.
“We’re gonna get bogged down in the process and in the meantime, how long is this going to take?” she said. “During that period of time, people are dying.”
Though not on the committee, Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez offered comments because she’s been involved in discussions about supervised injection over the years in her capacity as council representative for much of Kensington. She said that while she opposes a prescribed, mandated neighborhood process for a supervised injection site, Safehouse’s decision to move towards opening without talking to neighbors caused people to lose trust in government.
She said all her constituents want is to be treated with respect and included in a public decision making process.
But for others, the sites themselves are about dignity. Commissioner Farley noted that many people enter treatment after years of injection drug use, and these sites could help keep them alive long enough to do so.
“As severe as they may seem on the street, these people are all savable,” said Farley.
Helen Gym, one of two members who opposed the bill, added, “I think, most importantly, they’re people.”
City Council first created the ‘nuisance health establishment’ category in 2014 as a way to crack down on “pill mill” medical facilities that were giving out opioid prescriptions too freely. These businesses are blamed for contributing to the growth of the deadly overdose crisis that Safehouse now wants to mitigate.